|Play Ball (Please?): Fox Called Out on Balls and Strikes
|By John Teti, The Dartmouth Senior Staff|
|Published on Friday, April 23, 2004|
Last Friday, the Boston Red Sox won the first game of their weekend series against the New York Yankees, but more importantly, "Scooter" taught us what a knuckleball is! Twice!
Scooter, one of the "enhancements" that Fox has implemented for its baseball telecasts this year, made his debut a week ago as the latest indication that at Fox Sports, Fox comes first and sports come second.
Admittedly, this is the second time in a month that I've dedicated a column to the transgressions of Fox. I apologize, readers, but Fox is in need of some decrying.
In fact, I decried them quite loudly, and at times inappropriately for these pages, when Scooter showed up during Friday's broadcast. A brash, snarling, 3-D animated baseball, Scooter appears occasionally to bark an explanation of pitching mechanics, purportedly for younger viewers.
Since knuckleballer Tim Wakefield started the series for the Sox, Scooter taught the kids why a knuckleball weaves through the air. Yet sound problems hampered Scooter in his debut.
Unwilling to let the millions spent on Scooter go to waste, Joe Buck explained the snafu, and Fox played the animation again, but this time it overlapped with a play. So viewers missed part of the game because Scooter wasn't loud enough the first time.
I doubt the technicians in the broadcast truck felt much grief at their mistake. This shortchanging of the game is the cost of doing business with Fox.
To be fair, Fox does excel in some aspects of its baseball coverage. Joe Buck is among the best play-by-play commentators on TV, with the right combination of excitement and detachment. He does, however, have a tendency to get jokey and cute.
Tim McCarver, Buck's color man, is never cute. McCarver is a great student of the game and is (in)famous for his ability to predict the next bit of action just before it happens. At his best, he brings out subtleties in the game that add depth to even a seasoned fan's experience.
But when players don't go by the book, McCarver takes a shrill turn for the worse as he strenuously expresses his bewilderment that baseball is played differently than he played it in the '60s and '70s.
A classic McCarver moment along these lines came last year when spacey Red Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez had the audacity to head into left field with a water bottle in his back pocket. McCarver nearly lost consciousness. "He's out of uniform!" McCarver shrieked. Again. And again.
Still, McCarver must be given credit for one thing: he calls the game. He's uninterested in the Sprint PCS Virtual Manager, or the Fox Fan Cam, or the Imodium Explosive Play of the Game.
The rest of the Fox crew televise the game as if balls and strikes were an annoying impediment to their countless sideshows.
Take the "Fox Box," the stripe at the top of the screen that logs the score, men on base, pitch count, etc. Visually, it's a fair compromise between informative and intrusive.
Aurally, however, it's another matter. Each time the Fox Box appears on the screen, it slides in with a slot-machine-esque "chunk-kalunk," begging the question of why a scoreboard needs to make noise (Answer: because it can.).
And this year, the Fox Box has metastasized: a "tab" on the upper-right part of the screen advertises the scores of other games. For those without a short attention span, Fox simulates one, nagging and taunting you with all the games you could be watching.
Underlying all these bells and whistles is fear. It's a fear that a century-old game can't sell itself to the TV audience, a fear that baseball needs Fox's production prowess to prop it up.
This fear shows up even in the directing. Close game, bottom of the ninth, two outs, two men on. Do we see the pitcher looking in for his pitch? No, we see an extreme close-up of the manager chewing his tobacco. Closer, closer, feel his tension, please!
Meanwhile, I'm yelling, "Cut back to the field, please!" Fox doesn't listen, though, since national baseball broadcasts aren't designed for baseball fans anymore.
There's a cynicism to match the fear: Fox knows that the real fans will tune in regardless of their intrusions -- after all, there's nowhere else to see the game -- so they direct their efforts toward the "casual" fan.
Building interest in the sport is an admirable goal, and a network broadcast always has to appeal to a more general audience. But rather than seeking a balance between content for dedicated and casual fans, Fox is increasingly taking that former group for granted, resulting in a condescending, dumbed-down product.
Except for Tim McCarver. So God bless Tim McCarver. He may be a whiny, know-it-all jackass, but he's the only whiny, know-it-all jackass we've got.